"Bridging past and future"
An Interview with the Chinese Artist Yuan Shun
Recently, Deutsche Bank opened it new offices in Hong Kong, the art presentation there shows numerous works by artists from China, Hong Kong, Korea, Singapore, and Taiwan under the motto Urban Utopia. One of the highlights: Yuan Shun’s large-scale drawings from the series Hundred Million Years Landscapes. The photographs, installations, videos, and performances of the 1961-born artist revolve around the themes of landscape, city, and architecture. Yuan Shun lives and works in Peking and Berlin. Currently he takes part in the exhibition "Future Pass" at the 54th Venice Biennale.
||Achim Drucks: The drawings in your series "A Hundred Million Years Landscapes" are a synthesis of a number of different influences ranging from mythical dragon figures and science fiction to abstraction and detailed representation. How did this project develop?
Yuan Shun: In the fall of 2007, I came to Taiwan for the first time to partake in the Asian Art Biennale hosted here. I began to collect materials on local culture and phenomena, from which I started the project One Hundred Million Years of Landscape. The concept of One Hundred Million Years of Landscape does not aim to represent a particular world, but is an outcome of people’s extremely heightened consciousness, portraying traces left behind in vast time and space from reproductions of limited and short life.
The project primarily adopts the approach of collage. For example, I use various types of animals to compose a dragon, archipelagos without particular characteristics, and non-specific flying objects and constellations, from which I construct an imaginary world that bridges the past and future.
One of your main themes is the landscape that oscillates between reality and fiction, past and future. Are these scenarios to be understood as spiritual landscapes, or are you alluding to the rapid changes in urban and natural landscapes in China?
Both. In the summer of 2005, I revisited Beijing after being away for 13 years. Besides the historical buildings that were still standing, the city was mostly covered with high-rises and a web of highways, as if I was in the middle of an unknown city. At that time, the city map of Beijing had to be updated every three months. In today’s China, cities seem to be "borrowed" from the future, which became a symbol of common phenomena in China. The country reaches its climax in creative destructions, which, however, are changing rapidly and continuously. This embeds a number of issues. A time and space borrowed from the future would make us forget our history, as well as the people living in everyday reality. However, as we look forward to the future, we also need the present and the past. The world with abundant goods also needs a spiritual habitat. In this sense, the theme of my work can be both the prelude and conclusion of this great revolution.
Your fantastic scenes seem to exist in virtual space. Why did you create these works as drawings and not with the help of the computer?
I think the classical medium is the most effective way to experience the unfolding of your immediate reactions. It’s a rich and diverse extension of body language.
What do the dragon figures in many of your current works mean?
The legendary dragon figure does not exist in the real world. But this imaginary being designed by men interests me. It is a spiritual being composed of features of a lion, deer antlers, prawn’s legs, a crocodile’s mouth, a turtle’s neck and a snake’s body; it’s an composite being. Yet what it distinguishes it from the tragic figure of Dren from the movie Splice is that the four-foot dragon symbolizes positive energy and prosperity in China.
In your work, you often create models prior to a drawing or photograph and construct these in minute detail, whether they are landscapes or geometric forms. What is the connection between model, photograph, and drawing in your work?
I consider my work to be a search for the inner self. These installations, paintings and photographs transfigure a utopian realm; they are scenes of unachievable spaces in reality, possible renditions of such impossibility.
You graduated from the Art Army University China in Beijing, where you received both an art and military education. How have the two influenced your artistic work?
>From 1979 to 1983, I studied at the art college of the People’s Liberation Army in Beijing. I had two primary tasks at the time. One was to be a soldier and the other was to be educated as an art student. Upon graduation, I became an officer in the Chinese army. My life centered on being an officer and an artist, which is why I am interested in both philosophical thought and strategy. I have been studying the Art of War by Sun Tzu – an ancient Chinese volume that had a tremendous impact on military strategy. At the time, I used this book as my primary inspiration for my conceptual artworks. To this day, it remains a cornerstone of my works.
You’ve been living and working in Berlin since the nineties. Nowadays, you travel back and forth between Berlin and Beijing. How has your "outsider’s perspective" of both Germany and China influenced your artistic work?
We could determine the developmental speed and vigor of an era based simply on the progress of commercialization of an art district. It took 30 years for SOHO to develop in New York, ten years for Berlin’s city center to develop, but only five years for 798 art district to develop in Beijing. Of course, Berlin is the most vibrant center of contemporary art in Germany, or even in Europe, priding itself on the experimentation and quality of the artworks. In comparison, contemporary art in Beijing is still in the developmental phase. Although the development is swift, quantity of the works produced far exceeds the quality.
My nomadic lifestyle between these two places gives me a unique way of working. In Berlin, my work is largely experimental. I often lock myself up in my 12 square meter kitchen and contemplate while looking at the the sky and trees outside the window. While the ancients talked about "mind travel", and "strategizing on paper", I refer to myself as "kitchen artist". Most of my works on paper are completed through these states of imagination, including One Hundred Million Years of Landscape. Whereas my workstation is in Beijing, I use my factory warehouse studio to produce large-scale works about ideal space. The daily influx of information, decisions on complex artwork materials and the involvement of a number of assistants influence my thinking and the direction my work takes, comparable to general social reality.
Were there seminal experiences or exhibitions in Germany that changed the way you look at art and its possibilities?
Yes. In 1993, I had an exhibition at the Arts and Crafts Museum in Frankfurt, I asked Kasper König whether he’d be interested in participating in my art action project of collecting people’s hair, and he promptly agreed. Then, I prepared a pair of scissors and brought it to the museum, and asked a female Japanese assistant to photograph the performance. He calmly undressed and cut off a shred of his pubic hair, put it in a plastic bag, and handed it to me. The female Japanese assistant pressed on the shutter and then ran off. Everyone there was shocked. It was an experience that allowed me to fully realize the truthfulness, self-expression and liberal execution of European masters’ explorations.
Future Pass - From Asia to the World
4 June - 6 November 2011
Abbazia di San Gregorio & Palazzo Mangilli-Valmarana, Venice